Preparing for a national skills shortage

On February 6, 61 presidents from colleges, institutes and polytechnics across Canada assembled at Parliament Hill in Ottawa to engage in a dialogue about the future of Canadian employment.

Dr. Howard Rundle, the President of Fanshawe College, explained why this annual meeting is vital to the development of Canadian colleges. "It's important for colleges to be making the government aware about what the needs are, where they can help, and be aware of what their agenda is," he said, noting that being aware of the federal government's plans has been extremely beneficial in the past.

Though provincial governments provide the majority of college funding, there are certain roles the federal government plays that directly affect Canadian colleges. According to Rundle, the role of the federal government can be broken down into three sections.

The first is employment insurance, which provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed Canadians. Rundle explained, "It matters to (the federal government) if Canadians don't have jobs because then they have to pay, so they will often direct funding if it can get people re-employed."

The second area where the federal government is involved is in research grants, the majority of which are given to universities, however, colleges do receive grants for their applied research, which tends to focus on solving the problems of local businesses and industries.

Lastly, the federal government will occasionally provide capital grants to colleges to help them build new buildings. Take, for example, the new Fanshawe College Centre for Applied Transportation Technologies building at 1764 Oxford St. E. "In 2008, (the federal government) felt they needed to spend money to stimulate the economy and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) met with the Finance Minister to say, 'Well, you're spending money, so why not build buildings for colleges that are now 40 years old and need them?'" explained Rundle. The result of that meeting was the federally funded $30-million Z building.

At Parliament Hill, the presidents met with politicians and deputy ministers to discuss the growing concerns being faced across Canada. One of the main discussion points was how, as the baby boomer generation begins to retire, there will be more job openings than there are qualified members of the work force. Because of this advanced skills shortage, employers will have a difficult time filling open positions.

According to James Knight, President and CEO of the ACCC, the first of the baby boomers turned 65, the typical age of retirement, in 2011. As this generation continues to retire over the next 10 years, it is estimated that 1.5 million jobs will become available.

"That's great for those of you that are going into the job market, there are going to be lots of jobs available in the next five years and that'll go into the next 10 years. The big problem for the country is that there aren't going to be enough of you," explained Rundle. "In other words, high school enrollment is starting to drop So where are these people going to come from and how are they going to be trained?" he continued.

According to Rundle, one solution is to do a better job training people who, up until now, haven't attended a post-secondary institution. "The skills shortage is looming, and the federal government has a role to play. They're in charge of immigration, they're in charge of Aboriginal education and absolutely we did talk about that in a significant way," he said.

As Knight explained, colleges and the federal government need to find new ways to "equip our traditionally marginalized populations with the skills needed to succeed in our community." This will be done on a federal level in part by making it easier for skilled immigrants to come to Canada. As for colleges, institutes and polytechnics, they will have to prepare themselves for growing enrollment.

Rundle described the recent noticeable trend at Fanshawe of increased enrollment of mature students (students who aren't coming straight out of grade 12) and decreased enrollment in students directly from high schools. "We're looking at applications now for next September it's showing the trend. There are fewer grade 12 applicants than last year, but there are more mature students, more than the decline (of grade 12 applicants), so we have to plan to continue to increase our enrollment at two per cent per year for the next 10 years in order to meet that skills shortage," said Rundle.

The meeting at Parliament Hill was one of the first steps towards preparing both Canadian colleges and the Canadian government for the forthcoming skills shortages.